Sunday, 29 March 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 1

There are those who'll tell you that anime has never been the same since the nineties ended.  Those people are idiots, and I would point them to - just off the top of my head, mind - works like Summer Wars, Wolf Children, Ergo Proxy, Fractale, King of Thorn and From the New World.  Judging solely on the basis of my recent watching, it seems to me like we've never had it so good when it comes to gorgeous, intelligent, adult-orientated Eastern animation.

Yet, for reasons I can't explain* I've found myself drawn lately to broaden my knowledge of nineties anime, which, while it may not be the epitome of the form, is undeniably an interesting era in its development; the decade in which it really began to make inroads into the west, with classics like Akira, Perfect Blue, Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell, and perhaps too the decade that defined many of the tropes it would keep returning to.

Or maybe not!  I argue here from a position of self-avowed ignorance, after all.  I've seen the  classics, and a few random oddities, but until recently that was it.  So I guess this has partly been about filling the gaps in my knowledge; but also, let's face it, partly about chilling out with a load of insane Japanese cartoons about giant robots, dodgy tentacle-monsters and ninjas...

Ninja Scroll, 1993, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Speaking of which: Ninja Scroll is apparently regarded as something of a classic of its era, and it's not so hard to see why.  It has a distinctive look, slick animation, particularly fun action sequences, some terrific character designs - its rogues gallery of weird villains are a constant source of pleasure - and an overall vibe of gothic grotesqueness that's strangely satisfying.

That said, those are about the only things it truly nails. I've seen a few reviews that praise its plot, while baffles me, since there really isn't much of one: there's an evil scheme that needs uncovering before the final showdown, and it's developed in a somewhat non-linear fashion that someone somewhere might conceivably find confusing, but swerving a little on the way from A to B does not make you Tolstoy.  On top of that, there are aspects of Ninja Scroll that date it for the worst possible reasons.  In particular, it puts its female protagonist through a deal of unpleasantness - including a graphic sexual assault - that the film then makes use of in all the wrong ways, wasting an intriguing character in the process.

Still, there's not a great deal of point getting into anime if you're not willing to enjoy a movie that's basically a string of kinetic, gloriously animated, imaginative fight sequences.  And there's no denying that I did enjoy Ninja Scroll for the things it got right, which was plenty; it's just that at the same time a few conspicuous flaws made it tough to love.

Detonator Orgun, 1991, dir: Masami Ôbari

I was looking forward to Detonator Orgun.  Mostly because I'm a sucker for giant robots punching each other and because it was called Detonator Orgun, a title that positively oozes nineties animeness.  I know what a detonator is, I sort of know what an Orgun is (although I surely wouldn't spell it that way) but put those two words together and I don't have a clue what it might mean, which is exactly the sort of nonsensical ambiguity I expect from my nineties anime titles.   

Detonator Orgun did not much live up to its promise.  Much of this can be laid at the door of its hero, Tomoru, who's an unbearable dick even by the standards of nineties male anime heroes - which I'm coming to think are not exactly high.  I mean, look at him; I bet his favourite movie is Top Gun.  Who's he waving at?  What's with that hairstyle?  Dick.

However, as we'll see in a minute, anime movies don't live and die by how much you want to punch their heroes in the face.  Sadly, Tomoru and his blue jeans and leather jacket combo aren't exactly unrepresentative of what's happening elsewhere in Detonator Orgun.  The supporting cast are uniformly lifeless, and in particular it treats its female characters like crap, which by this point I was beginning to suspect was a definite thing with nineties anime.  The animation is resolutely average, though it does come to life in the battle sequences.  However even there, there are but three major tussles and the second is a reprise of the first, which makes it feel positively action-light when you've just watched something like Ninja Scroll.  Likewise, it has the seeds of an interesting plot, the explanation of where its villains have come from being particularly gonzo, but since that only really comes into play in the third act it adds up to too little too late.

It's a shame, because there's definitely a better film struggling to get out here.  If the main character was less of a douche-sack, if the rest of the cast were given more to do, if half an hour of nothing much happening were shaved off, then it would be ... well, above average, at least.  As it is, it's tough to recommend for anything besides its robot on robot action.**

Landlock, 1995, dir: Yasuhiro Matsumura

I came into this anime binge with no conscious agenda, and it was only when I watched Landlock that I began to realise just what I was after.  For there are few things more satisfying for a film geek than unearthing a minor treasure that everyone else seems to have forgotten or  overlooked entirely.  Landlock, then, was my first real success story: no-one much seems to give a damn about it, but for me it was like a cut-price Nausicaa, its imaginative fantasy shenanigans given a touch of class by some early Masamune Shirow character designs.

Following its plot of gods warring - much of which occurs entirely off-screen - relies on paying close attention to one brief splurge of back-mythology and then doing a deal of mental putting together of pieces to figure out just how that relates to the events of the film.  I found that brazenness charming; most other reviews seem to consider it irritating, or to have assumed the movie makes no sense.  And possibly it doesn't, but I'm looking forward to watching it again with the hindsight of knowing the ending.

Other than that, perhaps Landlock's greatest weaknesses are an underdeveloped (though teasingly interesting) villain and perhaps the dullest hero and heroine of any anime film ever.  But that sounds worse than it is, because the show gets entirely stolen within a few scenes by its supporting cast: the head bad guy's daughter, Agahali, who quickly cottons on to the fact that she might not be on the side of the angels, is particularly brilliant; but her henchman, Volk, who has such an enormous crush on her that he turns traitor at the drop of a hat comes close.  It has a heroic entomologist, for crying out loud!  What do people want?

So while it's possible and even likely that Landlock is terrible, you know what?  I'm recommending it anyway.

Macross Plus, 1994, dir's: Shôji Kawamori, Shinichirô Watanabe

 Another well-reputed movie, in this case one that's set within the universe of the equally reputable Robotech series, which I've had no experience at all with.  Macross Plus comes in two forms, one episodic and the other movie length, and I've only watched the first so far; I can see it working better all cut together, but as it was, it left me a little cold.  The conceit of fighter planes that turn into robots - often mid-fight - is tremendously fun, and makes for some thrilling, absurdly fast-paced battle sequences.  But that most of those fights revolve around a love triangle in which none of the participants are particularly likable does take the edge off, as does the fact that both the men involved are supposed to be professional test pilots and yet spend all their time trying to kill each other in a years-old grudge.  (Where I come from, we tend to fire our professional test pilots for blowing each other up over their shared girlfriend.)

Speaking of which, by this point it will come as a surprise to no one that the female characters don't get treated with a great deal of respect.  It's a particular shame here, though, because the B-plot - which follows the female lead and the galaxy's first AI pop star - spends much of its time threatening to go to far more interesting places than the A-plot, before they finally join up and Macross Plus decides to opt for the most obvious route instead.  Still, there's plenty to entertain on the way, and if the conclusion isn't exactly groundbreaking, it's a fair amount of fun nonetheless; frankly the technical values here are good enough on their own to keep the thing watchable.  That goes double for the music, which is consistently superb; it's no wonder that, high-speed transforming dogfights aside, the moments that stick in memory are the outstanding concert sequences.

Also, Bryan Cranston does one of the voices on the dub, which surely warrants a couple of bonus points.


Right, that'll do for the moment - mainly because that's about everything I've watched so far.  Despite some distinctly mixed success, the nineties anime bug hasn't unbitten me yet, so hopefully I'll get around to a part 2 in the not too distant future.  Could there be more Landlock's hiding out there?  I can but hope!

* Well, I do know one reason: you can pick them up second hand for pennies.

** Wait, that sounds wrong.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Ready to be Sharkpunked?

I suppose that you could theoretically be a little cynical about a short story anthology entitled Sharkpunk.  After all, haven't we had just about every imaginable form of punkage conceivable to the English language by now?  Just off the top of my head, there's been Steampunk, Shakespearepunk, Dieselpunk, Monkeypunk, Banjopunk...*

But, say what you like, there's something awfully appealing about seeing those two words stuck together.  And as Jonathan Green explains in his introduction, it's long past time that someone reclaimed the not-so-humble shark.  Forty years ago they were the greatest of movie monsters; now they're battling giant octopi and getting caught up in sharknados.  I mean, in a world where sharknado can be a word, slapping shark and punk together feels practically obligatory.  And perhaps that is the true punkiness of Sharkpunk: it aims to put sharks back where they should be, at the top of the underwater food chain.  It's kicking against the pricks, only in this case the pricks are those guys who keep churning out lousy movies about sharks doing dumb stuff.

Anyway, my contribution has nothing to do with any of that.  It possibly doesn't have a great deal to do with sharks at all.  It certainly contains the least punky shark ever to disgrace a body of water - in this case, a garden pond, which is also the least respectable home imaginable for a shark - and in short is about as far from the spirit of Sharkpunk as could possibly be. 

Or is it?  Maybe being against the spirit of Sharkpunk is the most Sharkpunky thing of all?

But no, it probably isn't.

The point of all this - because, yeah, there's always a point! - is firstly to say that Sharkpunk is coming in not much over a month, and promises to be one of the year's most interesting, not to mention strangest, anthologies; and also to mention that I now have an interview up on the Sharkpunk site, which you can read here.  Needless to say, you could count the number of sensible answers I came up with on a hand that a shark had just chewed all the fingers off.

* Disappointingly, it seems I made three of these up.  You'd really think Shakespearepunk would be a thing.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

On Writing for Prompts

Lately I've been thinking about - and discussing with writer friends - the merits of producing work for specific markets, or for markets with very particular guidelines.  By that I guess I'm mostly talking about anthologies of the "we only want to see historical stories about cybernetically enhanced chickens" ilk, though of course there are such things as work-for-hire and specialist publishers like Rebellion, whose recent opening for submissions was one of the events that got me mulling over this in the first place.

At any rate, it's something that in the past I've found myself arguing against pretty adamantly.  A lot of that, it occurs to me now, goes back to how my first attempt at writing to a prompt went very badly - or very well, depending on how broad your perspective is.  It was an anthology of fantasy stories about assassins, and I had a suitable idea ready to go, so I thought why not?  It wasn't great money but it was okay, and it was an open enough premise that I figured I could always sell the story elsewhere if it didn't get picked up.  But once I'd finished I felt good about the results, and hopeful that it might find a place.

It didn't, of course.  Instead I got a detailed personal rejection, based entirely on the first page.  This was exactly as galling as you'd think it would be, especially since every criticism the editor had made would have been addressed if he'd bothered to read on a couple more pages.  (It only occurs to me now to wonder if he lived all his life like this.  Dating must have been a nightmare, unless people were wearing really nice shoes.)  Anyway, as will often happen, it worked out okay in the end: I sold the story, which was Ill-Met at Midnight, for considerably more money to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and felt briefly grateful to an editor who thought judging stories on a single page was a viable thing to do.

This experience, inevitably, coloured my perceptions.  So, a couple of years later, did writing a story at an editor's personal request and to an extraordinarily specific mandate, for no money, which they then rejected at the last moment for reasons nothing to do with the story itself.  The conclusion that both experiences led me to was this: I could write a story specifically for one market and have it rejected, or I could write a story that I wanted to write, that was appropriate for any number of different markets and, with perseverance and a little luck, sell it for as good or better money.  Except that it was even worse than that, because writing for a specific prompt - especially an obscure one - was practically doomed to failure.  Since well-paying anthologies tend to get flooded with submissions, my fantasy story about assassins had to stand against maybe hundreds of other fantasy story about assassins, and had proportionately less chance of standing out.  Writing to a prompt actually decreased my chances of selling a story, and so seemed to me pretty much the definition of a mug's game.

Anyway, as is often the way with these posts, I only mention any of this because I've sort-of changed my mind. To the point where a fair portion of last month and this one have been devoted to writing stories for specific anthologies.  Is this the complete reversal it looks like?  Um ... not exactly.  But I've got to admit, I've seen another side to the argument, and that is, writing to someone else's pitch can be fun.  It can also be inspiring, in a world where inspiration isn't always as close as you'd like it to be.  In three cases since January, a stranger's suggestion kicked my brain into churning out ideas that I found myself helplessly eager to get down on paper.  In one case that meant that something which had been rattling inside my brain for half a decade becoming suddenly clear and writable.  But for the other two it was just sheer, distilled inspiration, the seeds of new stories manifesting out of nothing - and, man, I've missed that.

So from now on, maybe I'll be a bit more open to writing for specific markets. Or maybe all three of those stories will get rejected and I'll go back to my old opinion.  And perhaps the point here is more that no matter your writing practices, no matter the kinds of markets you favour, it's good to open your inspiration-radar up wide.  I suspect that I'd forgotten a little just how much ideas can come from anywhere, but it's absolutely true, and it's no bad thing to let someone else's suggestions guide you every once in a while.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Duotrope's Digest, Three Years On

Helping the headless since August 2005.
Somewhat over three years ago now, I wrote a post titled No More Free Duotrope's to commiserate the fact that Duotrope's Digest - self-described as a "service for writers that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, and non-fiction markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, submissions trackers, and useful statistics" - was moving from a donation-based model to a subscription-only one.  I've been a user of, and a fan of, Duotrope's for more years now than I can be bothered to count.  But having recently resubscribed for one more, and with doubts that I'll do so again come 2016, I thought that this might be the time to come back to the question I posed a third of a decade ago: is Duotrope's a good enough, vital enough service to warrant the $50 a year it currently costs?

Inevitably, the answer is "yes and no" - but to that I may as well add straight away that, for me, it's now more no than yes.  I said at the time that $50 was too expensive and lo and behold, it's still too expensive, a fact I'm feeling more now that writing is my only source of income.  The thing is this: I'm not paying for the submission tracker because I have a spreadsheet that does that, nor for the calendar of deadlines because again that's easy to do myself.  I'm certainly not paying for those useful statistics, since they're rarely terribly useful - but also for other reasons I'll come back to.  What I'm personally paying my $50 for is the database and the market updates, and unless those provide me with sales well in excess of $50 to markets I wouldn't (and couldn't) have found out about otherwise, there's just no way I can justify the expense.

There's a reasonable argument that 2014 scraped past that line, with sales to three anthologies I found out about from Duotrope's listings.  But when I stop to analyze that, the picture quickly looks less rosy: it works out that I paid them about 14% of what I earned because of them, which is only marginally less than the rate an agent would charge.  And if all an agent did was present me with a list of potential markets and say "knock yourself out," I wouldn't be paying them a thing.

Perhaps, in a sense, that's both an unfair and an overly restrictive yardstick to judge Duotrope's by.  Just because I'm not using all those other features, that's not to say they don't have value.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the moment a service becomes commercial, it opens itself up to such criticisms; clearly, most of us don't pay for something for no reason.  The point where a service begins charging, in fact, raises a whole host of expectations.  Three years ago I said that "maybe I'm wrong, and that extra cash will see Duotrope's develop into something even more marvelous" and I think what bothers me particularly is that that's exactly what hasn't happened.  This may to some extent be a failing of memory, but I'm fairly sure that, but for a few aesthetic differences, the Duotrope's Digest of 2015 is largely the Duotrope's Digest of 2012.  The added income appears to have done little but keep it ticking over, which feels unambitious from a site that once upon a time improved on an almost daily basis.  In fact, more and more, it seems like a service stuck in stasis.  It frustrates me, for example, that they're yet to amend their criteria of professional markets in line with the SFWA's not-that-recent revision; I realise the SFWA don't run the world, but since the Duotrope's definition for both short fiction and novels is exactly the same as the SFWA's old one, it seems a safe bet that that's where they got it from.

Oh, one last grumble, while we're here.  An obvious point of contention that the owners of Duotrope's acknowledged when they moved to the paying model was that anything which reduced the size of their user base would inevitably affect the quality of their data.  The point has been repeatedly made that this isn't the case; Duotrope's even has a specific page called "state of the stats" that exists to deflect such criticisms.  However, it also has a page that shows which markets have registered the most responses, and that tells a somewhat different story.  In retrospect, it's one that should have been obvious: the quality of statistics for markets now depends greatly on how much they pay.  For Clarkesworld, with over a thousand reports made, they're probably rock solid.  For smaller, lower-paying markets - or for markets that don't pay at all - it's a safe bet they're considerably less reliable now than they were three and a half years ago.

Since I don't feel entirely good about sticking the boot into a service I've used devotedly for years now, I should finish by saying that at its heart Duotrope's Digest remains a profoundly excellent product. It's effective, intuitive, easy on the eye and has been constantly useful to me over the years; I have no idea how I'd have managed without it.  And while I don't think that directly charging the user base was the right choice when it came to monetizing the site, it's not a service I actually begrudge paying for; I was, in fact, one of the few people who used to donate regularly back in the day.  All I'm really saying is, Duotrope's is great, but it's not indispensable.  And for me it's now too expensive for what it actually provides.  If I'm going to be still using it in another year from now, it will need to be a damn sight cheaper - I'd posit $36 as a reasonable charge - or a damn sight more essential.

I sincerely hope it ends up being one or the other, because if I'm forced to give up on Duotrope's Digest, I'm going to miss it.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The SFWA Broadens its Horizons

At the start of February, some significant news broke - it seemed to me - rather quietly: after a referendum of its membership, the Science Fiction Writers of America overwhelmingly decided to amend their guidelines so that self-publication and small press credits would be recognised as qualifying criteria.  How precisely that works is still up in the air until next month, but the gist is this: if your self-published or small press novel earned the qualifying sum of $3000 within a year of publication then it will count for joining the SFWA just as any traditionally published novel would.

Many will consider this good news.  Others, perhaps, will consider it overdue.  Certainly it's been on the cards for a long time; as long, I suspect, as I've been a member.  At any rate, my own feeling is that a good thing has happened, both for the SFWA and the writing world in general.  To me the SFWA is a basically necessary organisation.  At its worst, publishing can be one of the more cutthroat industries on earth, and it's crucial for creatives - a group of people traditionally not so great at looking out for their rights - to build communities and bulwarks to protect themselves.  The SFWA is one of the oldest of those, and one of the few that wields meaningful power.  It makes sense that it should set its borders wide enough that everyone who should be inside them is.

On a similar note, any trade organisation is bound to benefit from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  As an SFWA member, I absolutely want to hear the experiences of writers who've made successful careers within self-publishing and the small press, every bit as I much as I do those who've done the same through more traditional means*; despite what people sometimes appear to think, none of these paths are mutually exclusive, or even mutually incompatible, or really any damn thing but mutually beneficial, and I'd like to know that I'm getting the broadest range of expert advice I can.  There are many routes up this particular mountain, and I'd hate to get caught in an avalanche because I'd missed a path that someone could have told me about in the mountaineers club house and argh, this is a terrible metaphor, I know nothing at all about mountaineering.  I shouldn't even start these things, they never end well.

Look, if it's not obvious by now, I'm happy to admit that I voted for the amendment.  With books due from both a traditional and a small press publisher, not to mention plans to self-publish at some point, I have no horse in this race - or maybe too many horses, but let's not go there! - and I'd have found it hard to justify any other decision.  The small press / professional press distinction is not a particularly helpful one in my experience, and it would be foolish in the extreme to suggest at this late stage that self-published novels are any less valid that those put out by the Big Five.  Accepting that there have to be clear criteria for a professional organisation to be a professional organisation, surely setting a sensible bar is more productive than fussing about whether people are clearing it in the correct time-honoured fashion. 

In that regard, there's perhaps more work to be done - as I'll likely discuss one of these days, I still consider the SFWA's definition of professional rates to be shockingly low - but this feels like a huge move in the right direction, and here's hoping it's a sign of more positive change to come.

* Although, let's face it, though the forms may change, the small press and self-publishing are both as old as publishing itself.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Patchwerk Sold to

As is the way of publishing, I've been dancing around some big news for the last few weeks, until stars were sufficiently in alignment and ducks were appropriately in rows; but now the official announcement has been made, and I'm in the clear to say that have picked up my debut novella, Patchwerk.  Which is all sorts of brilliant news, because - well, because, for crying out loud.  Another one of my dream publishers ticked off the list, is what I'm saying.

It also means I get to work with my Angry Robot editor Lee Harris again, and to be part of a line-up that includes - as you would expect from - some of the best authors writing today.  I'm particularly geeking out to have my name in a list that also includes Mr Paul Cornell, one of my absolutely favourite creators, not to mention writer of brilliant graphic novel introductions.  And on a personal level, it means a lot to me for a whole host of other reasons too.  It's my first sale of a longer work since the Damasco novels, and since I went full time; in that sense, it's huge reassurance for the future.  By the same measure, Patchwerk was the fruit of a tough year, and as such absorbed that bit more blood, sweat and tears than it's slender thirty thousand words might suggest.  Writing Patchwerk also pushed me well outside my comfort zone, and I had to up my game accordingly; so that it's been picked up by my first choice of publisher feels like a vindication.  Once I invent time travel I now know that I can go back to my self of two years ago and let me know that it will all be worth it - whilst at the same time, of course, passing on a few choice lottery numbers and the secret of time travel, so that I can share it will all of my earlier selves too...

Oh, and speaking of irresponsibly mad science, Patchwerk has a whole lot of that going on.  My protagonist Dran Florrian is exactly the kind of guy who would invent a time machine to tip himself off about his own future, with all the inevitable awfulness that would involve.  Only what he's actually done is to create a reality-emulating machine called Palimpsest, which as it turns out is probably that bit worse.  Creating a device that copies aspects of other multiversal realities onto your own is, in fact, about as bad as an idea can be, however many safety checks you might build into it.  At least it is if said device has a mind of its own, and especially so if you let it fall into the wrong hands...

Which, I should mention, is only the beginning of Patchwerk, and from there things get much, much stranger.  And that's all I'm going to say for the moment, because spoilers of course, but also because it's tentatively due out some time early in 2016 and I'll no doubt be talking about it a whole lot more between now and then.

Monday, 9 February 2015

To End All Wars Actually Really Finished

It's a truism that nothing you write will ever be entirely done - there'll always be another draft, proofs, copy edits, crying over missed typos when you finally hold the finished article in your hands - and its another truism that I have a bad habit of declaring things finished at every opportunity, even when they're clearly not.  Nevertheless: as of last weekend, my fourth novel To End All Wars is effectively complete.

That's to say, I've done three drafts, I'm happy with it, it's as good as I feel I can get it.  Which means, from my point of view, that it's good enough to finally get packed off to my agents, Zeno, and of course I'm desperately hoping that in the longer term it will be good enough that someone will throw money my way for the privilege of unleashing it upon the world.

I've come to think - and it took me a while to get to this realization, obvious though it sounds - that you should write the books you want to read.  I mean, it is obvious, right?  But perhaps it takes a certain amount of learning to get to a point where it feels comfortable, and to figure out exactly what it is you want to read and how exactly you get to go about producing that.  At any rate, I'd like to hope that that's what I did with the Tales of Damasco, but I'm really confident it's what I've done with To End All Wars.  It brings together a whole lot of genres and influences and themes that I find  interesting and then tangles them up amidst a setting I'm completely fascinated by: the First World War, but more specifically, the wider context of that period when Edwardian values were abruptly, transformingly assaulted by the horrible reality of industrialized warfare.

And if that sounds a bit bleak and serious then I should probably emphasize just how much other stuff has gone into the mix, from adventure novels to a host of classic (and some more obscure) science fiction influences, to period dramas and country house mysteries, to stoic philosophy to ...well, you get the idea.  Or perhaps not.  Because something else I wanted for To End All Wars was that it wouldn't easy to pin down; I like the idea of a novel that constantly adjusts its relationship with the reader, challenging what they think it is and where it might be going, and that was what I tried to write: a book where even the genre might change from chapter to chapter to keep pace with the story's twists and turns.

Anyway, I should probably not say any more, right?  I mean, there's a lot of ground yet to cover; as with so much in the business of writing, this ending is only the beginning of the next phase.  Suffice to say, I've finished my fourth novel, I'm pretty damn excited about the whole thing, and I feel like I've written a book I'd be glad to read if I wasn't the one who'd written it.  That'll have to do for now!